When I was a kid, I always tried to be normal but it never worked. My lemonade stand was in the center of a cornfield. I often threw the football to myself. And sometimes I wore a Mustang Ranch T-shirt to school, which was a gift my dad acquired from an infamous brothel in Nevada.
I was raised by hippies in the middle of Nowhere, Minnesota. We weren’t farmers but I grew up on a farm. I was a counterculture kid in the middle of the subarctic flatland, raised with values so far left of conservative that my belief system circumnavigated the Earth and made me a slightly confused kid.
The farm was several miles outside Granite City, a town known for its fast food chains, factories, Catholics, and a prison. My dad worked at the prison. Ronald Reagan was a god to most people in the town and factories were “a good way to make a livin’, doncha know.”
Out in the country on the farm, we didn’t get many visitors. The numerous “No Trespassing” signs my dad put up throughout the fields, pine trees, and slews that surrounded us helped keep us isolated. We had no neighbors, and I had no siblings until I was almost eight. Many of my friends were imaginary and they came from comic books, Saturday Morning cartoons, and George Lucas movies.
Things changed when Uncle Bob arrived.
My uncle would show up out of seemingly nowhere every year or two, all six-foot-four of him and a head of brillo-pad hair grown out to resemble Art Garfunkel. My uncle would hoist me over his head, make me touch the kitchen ceiling with my face, and then stay for a month getting up to shenanigans with my family.
During his visit in the spring of 1981, my mom, dad, Uncle Bob, and I built a sweat lodge in our backyard and then did a pseudo Native American, New Age ceremony.
You don’t know what a sweat lodge is? Think of it as a traditional outdoor sauna used by Indigenous people in the Americas. Mine, however, was a rudimentary, crude dome hovel made using teepee poles, plastic sheets, and patchwork blankets.
Our sweat lodge was a strange little hut, but living on the farm was pretty strange.
Our farmhouse was one hundred years old, with yards on all sides, and a series of fields, forests, and swamps encompassing everything. Our one way out was a long, slowly bending quarter mile of dirt road to the nearest paved farm road and then another mile to the nearest farm.
There was an enormous haunted-looking barn in our front yard and numerous other empty buildings filled the landscape: an old pig shed, the skeleton of a corn crib, and a silo where ten thousand pigeons lived defecating on everything below them. There was a rule for me not to enter any of the farm buildings, but I broke that rule all the time.
When my dad and uncle decided to build a sweat lodge that Sunday, our yards were huge so there were many different places to put it. They chose a spot next to the garden near a dilapidated tin shed across from the old chicken coop and began planning.
I am very used to the term “jerry-rig”. Nothing was ever really built on the farm, it was jerry-rigged. My dad wasn’t a carpenter, mechanic, or engineer; he was a Vietnam veteran, hippie, and prison guard. So, most creations were cobbled together with wire, fastened with duct tape, and hammered in obtuse places until they resembled a Dr. Seuss-style mechanism that rarely worked or worked in unintended ways.
Since my Uncle Bob was visiting, I felt more confident about building a sweat lodge with him. My Uncle Bob was ten years younger than my dad and had recently traveled through Central America bringing back maps and stories of his adventures. He had gone to Mount St. Helens and gathered ash from the volcano’s eruption. He was a real-life hero of mine and I believed he could do the job.
My dad was someone I was scared of and who I looked up to at the same time. I put up with his abuse for small amounts of adoration. He worked nights at the prison, so I rarely saw him, but I badly wanted a father-son relationship.
Building a sweat lodge was an opportunity for me to connect with my dad and my uncle, and I was excited to be one of the guys.
We started by digging a pit. As usual, my dad worked with a menthol cigarette hanging from his mouth, dropping ash into his long beard as he dug. As dirt flew, my uncle asked me to help him gather the old teepee poles from the base of the chicken coop.
While we walked, I asked, “What’s a sweat lodge, Uncle Bob?”
“I did them out West with the Indians in Washington. You go inside, sweat, and talk to the spirits. You can ask them for things. Then, when you get too hot, you get out, jump in a cold river, and go back in to sweat more.”
“But we don’t have a river nearby, Uncle Bob.”
“That’s what the kiddie pool is for.”
I still didn’t understand what lay ahead, but I helped Uncle Bob rescue the teepee poles from the debris of a greenhouse my dad had built that went awry during a storm. While my dad and uncle cut the poles with a bow saw, they sent me off with a plastic five-gallon bucket to gather rocks.
I went to a slew in the woods that I knew was a good spot to skip stones, and I amassed as many rocks as I could carry in the bucket. When I returned, a dome had been made over the shallow pit using the poles. My rock collection wasn’t enough yet, so I was sent away to gather a second bucketful.
On my return, I saw my dad and uncle quickly snuffing out what looked like a cigarette they were sharing.
“Oh hey! Hey, GB!” my dad said. Both looked guilty and my uncle didn’t smoke cigarettes.
“Good work gettin’ the rocks. We’re all set! All set for rocks,” Uncle Bob said turning away from me.
I set aside my judgment and placed the second bucket of rocks in a corner of the yard.
The skeletal dome was covered in dirty, opaque plastic, which was hammered to the teepee poles with nails. It looked like a sad space saucer. Four feet high and ten feet in circumference.
We three men stood surveying our work and then my dad said, “Go inside and get your mother.”
My mom was more level-headed than both my uncle and my dad, and although she was a hippie, she had crossed over into the world of “the straights”.
Her formerly long hair parted down the middle had been chopped and permed so she now resembled 1980s Barbra Streisand. She was what you’d call an early adopter of New Age belief but with a wholesome Minnesota Nice attitude and a proclivity for Midwest Gothic thinking. Someone who read Tarot cards, used Moosewood Cookbooks to make dinner, and listened to music by Holly Near.
I ran to the house and yelled through the screen door, “Mom! Dad wants you!”
She heard me and said, “What does he want?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
She soon arrived outside with my two-year-old brother, Kaleb, in her arms.
“Is that gonna hold?” she said after seeing the sweat lodge.
My dad pulled the cigarette from his mouth and said, “Sure! Yeah! Sure! Yeah!” Bronson men often spoke in double. “We just need some blankets to keep the heat in.”
“You’re not going to ruin my good blankets?”
My uncle chimed in, “You’re gonna love how hot it gets!”
Blankets were brought outside and the spaceship was covered with them as the spring sun began to drop.
“Let’s get a fire going to heat up those rocks. And let’s get that little pool out of the garage and fill it up,” Uncle Bob said.
A fire was built, and my dad and uncle placed the rocks in it. When they were red hot, they were scooped with a shovel and carefully laid into the pit in the center of the sweat lodge. As they shoveled hot rocks, I went to the garage to get the kiddie pool while my mom took my brother inside.
The garage was an old building that leaned to one side. My dad had tacked a raccoon tail and two snakeskin hides to the wall outside, which were trophies our dog Zeb had caught. The storage area was heaped over in a chaotic puzzle of various tools, mowers, and bicycles that sat under a black and white poster of Sitting Bull, the famous Native American chief.
The kiddie pool had a smiling pink octopus in the center, and it was on top of the chaos under Sitting Bull’s stoic face. I dug the pool out, brought it near the sweat lodge, and my mom started filling it up with a garden hose.
After the hot rocks were inside the sweat lodge, Uncle Bob brought a five-gallon bucket filled with cold water near the lodge, and using a metal ladle from our kitchen, he poured water on the rocks inside. They popped and hissed. Steam filled up the tiny space quickly.
The sun was gone and a full moon was coming up when my mom asked, “Are you gonna get your swimsuit on, Gentry?”
Then, my uncle said, “He doesn’t need one.”
“Oh, let him wear a suit,” my mom said.
It didn’t occur to me that my uncle wasn’t joking.
I ran inside and up the stairs to my bedroom. While there, I quickly checked on Kaleb sleeping in his crib and returned wearing a pair of baggy, yellow swim trunks with a towel over my shoulders.
My mom, dad, and Uncle Bob were standing in front of the sweat lodge waiting for me. The three of them stood under the spotlight of the full moon completely naked. Dad’s schlong emerging from a mass of pubes was illuminated next to Uncle Bob’s even larger member inside an even bigger thicket of hair. And next to them, stood my mom, nude from head to breasts to bush to bare feet.
I didn’t have time to feel embarrassed.
“Sweat’s ready. Climb in! Climb in!” my uncle said.
My mom opened the blanket entrance, crawled inside and I followed. I was hit with a massive wall of steam and heat. It was 120 degrees in there when I crouched and waddled over to a place opposite the entrance and sat down. My uncle and dad climbed in and pulled a blanket over the sweat lodge door. It grew dark, but I could still make out my family’s faces only feet from my own.
I was covered in sweat immediately and struggled to breathe.
I sat, heavily inhaling and exhaling, with one knee touching my naked uncle and my other knee touching my naked mom, while I looked across the rocks at my dad and his member lying between his legs in the grass we sat on.
It was so hot but I refused to bolt for the door. I thought, I’m old enough for this. I can take it.
My uncle told me to speak to the spirits. I wasn’t exactly sure how to do that, so instead, I made up wishes and wants. I may have been a hippie child, but I was baptized Lutheran, and I created a mixture of Christian and Native American inner thoughts and desires while I tried to breathe the heavy air.
Uncle Bob added water to the rocks with the ladle and steam rose. We stayed like this for twenty minutes.
Then, my dad had a panic attack.
First, he started hyperventilating, his eyes bulging. Then he turned around, wiggling his naked body, and nearly burned his butt on the steaming rocks. He got on his hands and knees and shoved his head under the blankets and plastic so his head was outside but his body was still inside the sweat lodge.
We heard him breathing rapidly and moaning.
My mom asked, “Are you okay?”
He said nothing for a while, then he pried his head back inside. His long hair and beard were dripping with sweat, grass, and dirt, and his eyes looked wild. Then he crawled up and shot through the opening to the outside.
We paused, looked at each other in the thick air and steam, and all crawled out after him.
I immediately plunged into the kiddie pool, rinsing my sweat off. Cooling as much as possible. The water felt incredible as I sloshed around and then I looked in the yard.
My dad and uncle had disappeared somewhere. But my mom was standing nude in the grass. Her arms spread wide open, her head tilted back, breasts bared, and her legs apart in a V.
She yelled, “Look! I’m doing a moon bath! I’m bathing in the Moon Goddess!”
I watched her in her strange ecstasy for a moment and then felt I should turn away, so I did.
My dad and uncle reappeared soon afterward. Dad was still wide-eyed but calmer. Uncle Bob, Mom, and I went back into the sweat together. My dad smoked a cigarette and joined us after he finished.
We did a series of five twenty-minute sweat sessions, and Dad was able to join us for most of them. It was an odd family ceremony. Both off-putting and bonding at the same time.
It went on until almost midnight. Then, I rinsed off one final time in the kiddie pool, dried off, and went upstairs to bed.
I heard the adults continue having fun outside, but it was a school night for me.
The next morning, I took the bus to school. When I arrived, I hung up my backpack and coat. I hung out with my friends in the cafeteria before the bell rang, and we all went to our classrooms.
Math class started and as I sat doing long division, I realized that my Sunday night was probably very different from my classmates.
Even though I kept everything to myself, I felt like everyone knew. They knew I’d been sweating in my backyard inside a jerry-rigged dome with my naked family.
I always tried to be normal but it never worked.